Sunday, December 16, 2012

Monorail and the Cool Cat Club

Monorail’s 10th birthday party, featuring The Pastels, Sacred Paws, Moon Unit and Richard Youngs, at Mono, Glasgow, 9th December.

The Cool Cat Club meets Monster A-Go Go Xmas Special, with The Won Over, Hookers for Jesus and Blood Indians, at Beat Generator Live!, Dundee, 14th December.

Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of crisis amongst record shops? No one wants physical product anymore, no one wants to pay. Music is free to be whatever it wants to be, in the ever decreasing gaps between wage-earning activity; it’s cheaper than chips, and mushier than peas in the retromanic rush to satisfy a craving for an infinite replication of those two or three great and simple sounds in whose presence the listener’s heart first opened. That last sentence adapted from the Camus quote draped elegantly over the artwork of Scott 4*, which I had to reach down from my CD racks, a physical object of some vintage by now, there having been at least one reissue since, and three new Scott Walker albums, which isn’t something that happens overnight. It would be too easy on this occasion to be triumphalist, to point out to Avalanche that the reason they struggle to sell records is that they don’t curate them well enough — too easy because their falling away didn’t come from nowhere, it’s a reaction to lack of interest. But still, it’s sad when you go in and can’t think of anything to buy (I hadn’t seen their closing down statement before, that is sadder still). In the shop, just prior to the birthday bash, I was thinking that my recent Monorail haul (Chain and the Gang, Lee Hazlewood, Cults Percussion Ensemble, Movietone) was going to be enough to keep me going for the moment, until Chris cracked open his just-acquired copy of Dep’s latest foray into releasing records. A white box set called Some Songs Side-by-Side, it comprises two LPs and ‘documents a community of bands that have been active in Glasgow throughout 2012’. Each of the eight bands gets half a side, or twelve minutes. Also included are a poster, three art prints on paper and an LP-sized / shaped sticker by David Shrigley, which reads ‘I collect records, I am obsessed with them.’ There’s a booklet with more art prints and a CD of the music — it’s such a beautiful object. Consider this a rave review, and I haven’t even listened to it yet, though I’m looking forward immensely to more Gummy Stumps and Muscles of Joy, the first released recordings of Sacred Paws, and finding out about other things I’d missed. It’s only £20, somehow. If you love records, you need a copy. Monorail understand that objects matter, they put in the time and care to contextualise them, to make them tantalising. ‘Atmos., transactions, good times’, as a flyer slogan of theirs once had it.

The above written last Monday night, after the gig on Sunday. I stopped to listen to Some Songs, (much more fun than typing) and didn’t get started again. But what happened was: Richard Youngs set up a table with a laptop, a tiny guitar amp and a noise generating thing with knobs, and intoned, using the lower of John Lydon’s two patented notes, ‘Another sleepless night’. It became annoying almost immediately, which was the point, I think. He repeated it continuously for most of the twenty minute set, pausing occasionally to drop the microphone with a loud bang, to set the laptop drum loop going, or stop it again, or to twiddle with amp or noise generator. He’s a great performer to watch — fearless, hyperactive, bloody minded. The last time I saw him he played the same song twice in a row because he didn’t like the key, so he moved the capo on the guitar and played it again. ‘Another sleepless night / Another sleepless night’, on and on. ‘I wonder if he has kids?’ said S. After Youngs, it was all about the drumming: Moon Unit did an Acid Mothers style squall that took a while to whip itself up, but once it had it tore through sails and rigging alike, and you might even say that the drums tore through the guitar and the bass, fixing their vagaries. Sacred Paws were as excellent as they had been at the CCA a few weeks previously, and seemed a little awe struck by the large audience, which thanks to the shape of Mono does look a little like the outer reaches of a stadium brought right up close when it’s packed. A wall of faces. The Pastels sounded louder and generally bigger in this small venue than they had in the Bush Hall, and more overwhelming in consequence. New song ‘Come to the Dance’ came off better this time, more confident, less hurried. There could hardly be more of a home crowd than this, and Stephen took the opportunity of a pause occasioned by a snare drum problem (if there was ever an opportunity to ask for a Spare Snare...) to say a little about the occasion. That he and Dep had started Monorail with little more than a loan, and that it was amazing to have everyone here... He trailed off, and a loud cheer from the crowd completed the thought. Then he dedicated ‘Baby Honey’ to Dep. It would be too easy to be triumphalist, but it doesn’t hurt to be celebratory now and then. Thank you, Monorail.

I was thinking about all that great drumming — particularly Sacred Paws’ — watching Blood Indians on Friday at Andy’s Christmas Cool Cat Club gig. It’s not that you have to have joyously complicated rhythms to be worth watching, but Blood Indians are a little too basic for me. Very straight strumming, or sometimes picking, nothing much in the way of syncopation. They played two covers: ‘Silent Night’, as this was a Christmas gig, and that suited their pared down style well; and the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’, which I liked a lot less. The whole taking a synth song and making it a guitar song idea is open to the suspicion that the performer is trying to add integrity in a dreadfully unimaginative way. I don’t like the song either. They were at their best on the closing ‘Wolves’, which is based around Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ riff, and which takes off into strange vocal territory. The two singers’ voices are folky and inward, a bit Rozi Plain, and when they soar and intertwine that can be interesting — mysterious, even.

This year Andy’s put on quite a few gigs: Vic Godard in March, Edinburgh School for the Deaf in September, an Oxjam house gig featuring his own, reformed Candy Store Prophets in October. Then there was a slightly odd experiment in June, when the best band, Creeping Ivies, went on first and the headliners, The High Fevers, essentially a wedding band, played very famous ’60s songs, wearing polo necks and fringes pinched from mid-period Beatles. That didn’t quite work, but it was an interesting thing to try, and it probably paved the way for Friday’s extravaganza. The poster advertised burlesque dancers, in a move presumably half-inched from Dexys, but considerably more down market. It was the incongruity of it that was so wonderful: following the sedate Blood Indians, and in the context of several craft stalls at the back of the room, selling jewellery and home-made greetings cards, we got an amusingly gobby Glaswegian** on the mic introducing two burlesque dancers and one belly dancer. The belly dancer was good (we were warned not to ask her to get her tits out — never had that at an indie gig before), and the other two... I mean, what do you say, really? The second one emerged covered in glitter-filled balloons which she proceeded to burst until there were only suggestively-placed ones left. Immediately after she’d finished, the barman rushed out with a dustpan, broom and bin, the MC still in mid flow with her concluding remarks. You can’t buy faded glamour like that.

All of which was the perfect introduction to the best Hookers for Jesus set I’ve seen. In amongst the crafts stalls was a face-painting one, and Graeme (hair already dyed orange, and a fox tail attached to his guitar) got himself made up as a fox; Andy as a death’s head. They had expanded to a four-piece with the addition of Peter from Vladimir on guitar, and ex-Candy Store Prophet William on bass. I’d been a bit apprehensive that the extra bodies might dilute the Hookers magic, which relies so much on Graeme’s idiosyncratic sensibilities (both audio and visual), but in fact the increased stage presence gave both protagonists more leeway. Graeme got to be more of an axe hero (no pun intended, other Graham), and the extra guitar and bass gave him the chance to open up some seriously corrosive pedals, which made me think of Scars. Andy reacted to this with a visceral performance, shouting choruses, lying down, climbing on to the monitors. It was thrilling stuff: more rock than normal, I guess, but such a slow, strange, gothic-theatrical version of it. This reached its peak on either ‘Cabaret Song’ or ‘The Dead Don’t Dream’, the two dark monologue monoliths of recent Hookers shows. They revisited their cover of Spacemen 3’s ‘I Walked With Jesus’ to increased effect, too, and played a Christmas song — not ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker’, sadly, though it had been a contender (it did get played by the DJ).

After this the burlesque MC returned, in a Darth Vader outfit, to do her own routine. The night’s headliners, The Won Over — featuring my old boss Owen — were always going to struggle against such weirdness, and they were good, but too normal, really. They reminded me of not liking Broken Social Scene and, without being totally overblown, were reaching for the epic without really getting their hands dirty. The night belonged to the Hookers, the fuck ups, the waifs and strays.

* ‘A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’

** Pretty pleased to discover, looking up ‘gobby’ to make sure it’s a real word, that my dictionary gives ‘a gobby Glaswegian’ as its usage example.

Hookers for Jesus photo by S.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Chain and the Gang and Sacred Paws, CCA, Glasgow, 27th November / Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, R.M. Hubbert and Gordon Legge, DCA, Dundee, 28th November

Downstairs at the CCA was a moveable stage they set up sometimes. The last time I saw it, they put it up against the back wall, opposite the balcony. This time it was in front of the stairs, you could see people walking down it from backstage. The support act, Sacred Paws, and the Chain and the Gang musicians. But none of them really arrived until Ian Svenonius and Katie Greer, descending, spotlit, he in a grey suit and implausibly big black hair, she in a red dress with a puffed up underskirt, bustle-like (there will be a proper word for that, I'm sure), wearing a matching 1950s snarl. Slouching on down from heaven, and suddenly that staircase was Busby Berkeley, or A Matter of Life and Death. What presence!

Upstairs at the DCA, in from the cold to a gallery emptied of art and filled with red plastic chairs, like a school assembly. Art and music don’t mix, right? Art and pop don’t mix, neither can survive the other’s glare — of hauteur, of hatred. But before pop could get going in this art place (much more pure art than the CCA, if pure art is white walls and precious captions), there was some reading to be done, and it was as though whoever put the evening together had dredged Scotland for an intonation more dour than Aidan Moffat’s. I was too impatient to follow the story he was reading, but Gordon Legge had the crowd stupefied with his resigned monotone, at a higher pitch that Moffat’s, and slightly scuffed. This was presence too, hypnotic as exhaustion, and few left, so maybe the others were listening. But it struck me as too pure art in attitude.

Ian Svenonius jumped, and kept shrieking something akin to Iggy’s ‘Shake!’, which it gradually dawned on me must be ‘Chain!’ He jumped four, five feet, it seemed, kicking outwards and somehow missing the front teeth of the front row. He and Katie had most of the P.A.’s volume — you could hear the band, but this was a vocal performance, and a largely improvised one at that. Svenonius can go off piste whenever the mood takes him, and he riffed, because of the CCA, on the subject of contemporary art, dispensing advice such as, don’t make any art in the first two decades of a century, and work in stone, because nothing else — especially not live performance — will last. But as well as art there is having a good time to consider, he conceded. He jumped into the audience a few times so he could sing directly at people, at least one of whom cracked up at the deadpan stare. Katie didn’t do that, but her zombie jitterbug demeanour was hyperactive enough, and made me think of Edinburgh School for the Deaf. Each casually held their microphone backwards without looking when the guitarist or the bassist (who chewed a toothpick the whole time) was required for backing vocal duties. It was slick-ish but also chaotic, a dizzying, exhilarating performance.

R.M. Hubbert gave a more static performance but a more moving one. His guitar playing was incredible, relaxed but virtuosic, and included on several songs a rhythm tapped intricately on the instrument’s body whilst he played at least two other parts on the strings. It wasn’t an ostentatious kind of virtuosity, it was sounds lost inside themselves, with a warmth and a succour that contrasted with the prettiness of Alasdair MacLean’s equally proficient playing with Amor de Dias the other week. Hubbert’s between-song chat was candid and self-deprecating, the opposite of Svenonius’ hilarious and invigorating posturing. He talked about the death of his parents, and a twenty-year struggle with depression. He recommended therapy, but said he prefers playing gigs. ‘In therapy you sit there and talk for an hour, the therapist doesn’t say much. You pay him and you leave.’ Gigs fulfil the same function, with the money flowing the other way, ‘which works better for me.’ This sounds joyless and self-absorbed, but it didn’t come across that way, it’s hard to say why.  It was partly the music, but that wasn’t the whole story. One song was about his ex’s father, who died whilst he was away on tour, and he plays the song so that he can remember him for a few minutes each day. A lovely man, we were told, but modest. ‘Me telling you all about him... he would have fucking hated it’ said Hubbert, a glint in his eye.

But we’re straying from pop and art now. So this might be the time to flit back to the CCA and mention Stephen Pastel’s ‘guerrilla film screening’ in a side room before the bands played on Tuesday. The idea was to show the episode of This Is Our Music (the MTV show) about él records impresario Mike Alway, on the basis that Ian Svenonius once made a record under his direction, playing the Alway-created character David Candy. Interviewed by Stephen after the twenty-odd minute screening, Ian recalled how he had fallen under Alway’s spell to the extent that he agreed to come to London for a month to make a record for him, with Alway supplying the concept, the look and the musicians. When they met, Alway told him that ‘The musicians aren’t quite ready yet’, and they remained not ready for some time. Come the last few days before Svenonius’ return flight to America, he finally told him, ‘The musicians are ready, you’re going to have to go to Bristol.’ In Bristol the musicians, él regulars, said ‘Don’t tell Mike, but we haven’t prepared any music.’ So they knocked the record out in a day or two, and Ian caught his return flight. He re-recorded some of the material later on, but Mike said ‘No, it’s perfect.’ ‘I don’t think he understood that other people knew who I was,’ speculated Ian, of this makeover in Alway’s 1968 mould. In the film Alway admitted to a fascination with the ’60s but denied that the records he puts out are retro. ‘Because... Who would want to buy them?’ he argued, winningly.

Sacred Paws seemed totally at odds with Alway’s high concept, hands off approach. A duo, drums and guitar, Eilidh out of Monorail and Rachel out of London, which sounds impractical, but it works. Rachel’s guitar sounded like Four Brothers, like early Orange Juice. Harder, but that sort of rapid melodic meander. She said she’d hurt herself dancing to — what was it, George Michael? — and that she normally danced more on stage. She still danced quite a bit. Hair skewed immaculately to one side and wearing no shoes, she had presence too. Once the two of them started to play two different songs, and came to a stop after a few seconds. Eilidh started talking, but Rachel banged out some open non-chords to drown her out. ‘You were about to apologise,’ she said, accusingly. One song near the end of their set gelled so suddenly and so beautifully out of its shifting rhythms that I was transported to the bit which does that in New Order’s ‘Perfect Kiss’. Not a bad first impression.

Are Bill and Aidan pop? Didn’t they put out a cover of Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’? And isn’t the CD decorated, bereft of text, with a fearsome photo of the sun, filling the small disc? So yes and no. Chris was reassured at the sight of the trumpet player, stage right, who looked, as he put it, like an ‘equable Rasputin’. This was Robert Henderson, he explained, from the Bill Wells Trio. That time at the Tron Theatre... ‘Oh my God’ I exclaimed, remembering the most beautiful half hour of music I suspect either of us has ever heard. ‘Exactly. Robert Henderson just makes things better.’ And he did. His muted trumpet sidled its way around Bill’s spare chords like fog on film, giving Aidan a platform a mile high and three miles around. And he rose to this occasion, which is what makes the collaboration a success, I think. The first time I heard them together (minus Henderson) I thought he did a decent job but diminished Bill’s music. I’ve come around since then, and I enjoyed the set a lot, including Aidan’s predatory persona (particularly in ‘Man of the Cloth’, where he dresses up as a vicar at a Hallowe’en party). Such grounded, linear stories as Aidan tells can seem too well defined, their sharp edges bound to puncture... the fog. But you can’t puncture fog. And it can be heightened by the sense that behind it there lurks a hidden danger.


Bill Wells photo above taken from a stunning set on milnefaefife’s generally stunning photostream.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chickfactor: For the Love of Pop!, Part 1: The Pastels, The Aislers Set, Would-Be-Goods and Amor de Dias at Bush Hall, London, 17th November

Saturday didn’t exactly go as planned. It was a long time since S. and I had been in London, so, rather like last time, we tried to fit too much in. This wasn’t helped by a misunderstanding about which Rough Trade to meet Chris at (in his defence I think he did say he was going to Covent Garden; in mine that shop is not there any more), or a replacement bus service for the tube which took nearly an hour and a half to get Brogues to Portobello Road. Where, before he arrived, I overheard an American say to a companion, ‘My mother bought a pet shop here, and turned it into an art gallery. She sold it to Brian Eno.’ That seemed a good Portobello Road moment. A rather frustrating day made the Bush Hall seem all the more welcoming, and I agreed with what Gaylord Fields said during his introduction to Amor de Dias, when he described the relief of turning from the busy Uxbridge Road, ‘with all its... people’, and entering the calm of Bush Hall with its friendly like-minded souls and its beautiful music hall interior. The band continued that effect, reproducing the calm reverie of their Street of the Love of Days album, just the two of them, Alasdair Clientele and Lupe Pipas, sitting down, with almost-matching Spanish guitars. Alasdair’s playing was frighteningly proficient – flamenco-esque finger picking, fluid as you like. They suffered a bit from loud chatterers at the back of the hall, which seemed to annoy Alasdair: ‘Shut it,’ he said, in an exaggerated East End voice. ‘No, please don’t,’ Lupe hastened to say, not wanting to dictate the audience’s behaviour. They didn’t shut it, and it felt a little as though the... people had intruded. There was a guest spot from Pam Berry, singing a sad song about dwindling affection, that was a treat.

The Would-Be-Goods fared better against the chatter, having drums, and went down well. They were new to me, except for a bit of pre-gig listening to their Eventyr album, and I couldn’t quite get over the impression of a second-tier Heavenly, a point brought home immediately after the set, when the DJ played ‘Cool Guitar Boy’ – in acknowledgement, presumably, of their guitarist Peter Momtchiloff, who was so amazing in Heavenly. He was good in the Would-Be-Goods too, and it was a thrill to see him, immaculately turned out in a red wild west shirt and bootlace tie. It seemed as though Jessica Griffin’s lyrical concerns might stretch beyond the Heavenly palette, though – one song was introduced as being a conflation of fairy tales, for instance. More listening needed, I think. In person, they generated such goodwill and bonhomie. Not least through the drummer, in pigtails and with a ‘W’ made of plastic horse shoes around her neck, smiling the whole time and adding zestful backing vocals.

[Going through this piece prior to posting, a week and a few more spins of Eventyr later, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the paragraph above. It is starting to seem very good indeed, and ‘Temporary Best Friend’ – which they played – a solid gold pop classic. Much more listening definitely needed.]

The Aislers Set were downright incredible. All Californian sunshine, thought Chris, compared to a certain depressive quality on record. There is a kind of sullen distance to them, which you can certainly get over (it took me a while at the time – it was Alistair Fitchett’s raving on Tangents and elsewhere that made me make the effort, I think). Then again, by ‘sullen distance’ maybe I mean ‘attitude’, maybe I mean they’re not marketing themselves. Whatever, that distance evaporates in their presence, literally and sonically. Amy looks tiny behind her huge 12-string guitar, hair short-ish but long and curly enough to mostly obscure her eyes, and she has a fast, nervous, slightly geeky way of talking. There were more of them than I’d expected – five, six? Including a trumpet player. And a happy looking bassist, who would rush to the assistance of Lupe’s fallen guitar during Pipas’ set on the following day. The band tore into their catalogue with vicious abandon, almost galvanizing an audience not in the first flush of youth into a mosh pit. Songs? ‘Emotional Levy’, ‘Catherine Says’, ‘The Red Door’, the one the guitarist sings about walking lost in the city... Actually, that’s a recurring theme, the one I mean is ‘The Lonely Side of Town’. The sudden shifts in rhythm carried a weight and a punch I’d never heard in them before, the drummer was whip-cracking sharp. It was a blast, a real triumph, I haven’t enjoyed a band that much in ages. The crowd was rapt, too, which helped.

How would The Pastels follow that? Why, with ‘Charlie’s Theme’, of course. Which worked rather well – a blissed-out come down from a raging high. Stephen announced that their album is now due for release in March, ‘Pastels time... I’m not saying which year’. But they’ve said on Twitter that it’s done, mixed, mastered and has a catalogue number, so unless they decide that 2013’s an unlucky number, it can’t possibly be any longer than that, surely? Katrina seemed to like the acoustics, ‘I can hear everything,’ she said, approvingly. Alison is fairly obviously pregnant, and the future must be bright, you would have thought, for a child formed to this soundtrack. To ‘Secret Music’, ‘Flightpaths to Each Other’, ‘Thru Your Heart’ and ‘Fragile Gang’. There was a new, quite fast Katrina song, ‘Come to the Dance’. ‘Baby Honey’ got its now-traditional set closing outing, Stephen sliding a can of Red Stripe all over the fretboard for maximum rock ’n’ roll. And for an encore – this was wonderful – ‘Comin’ Through’, specially requested by Gail Chickfactor; and then its partner-piece, ‘Over My Shoulder’, slowed and, again, blissful. It’s great to see The Pastels, so long intent on pursuing their own voyage out from the starting point of ’80s indiepop (a sound they’re largely responsible for, of course), check back in with such grace. Roll on March.

Photos, as before, from Chris S.’s Chickfactor 20 set. None of The Aislers Set, curiously, but there are some great videos of their set (and many others’) on anorakhighst’s YouTube channel, as Tweeted / Facebook-ed by Chickfactor themselves over the last week.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chickfactor: For the Love of Pop!, Part 2: Tender Trap, Pipas, The Real Tuesday Weld, Bridget St John and Jim Ruiz Set at The Lexington, London, 18th November

Isn’t Ten Songs About Girls a great record? Unapologetically un-damaged, and plugged in to Talulah Gosh’s rattle and clatter, with all the control and melody of Heavenly. They were starting to hint at this sort of thing with previous album Dansette Dansette, and I wrote at the time how relieved I was, as a late starter at the Amelia Fletcher appreciation game, that with ‘Counting the Hours’ something amazing had happened while I was listening, rather than back in the ’80s or ’90s when I wasn’t. Not that it was the only good song on the record, but... it just does something to me. Goose bumps, a rush, happy tears – Pop, in other words. And as if it wasn’t enough to hear Amelia sing live for the first time on Sunday, Tender Trap’s first song was ‘Counting the Hours’. She in a spangly white dress with black concentric circles, hair short and black, like in every photo ever. ‘That’s exactly my fashion sense,’ said S., approvingly, referring to student indie discos of old where she would have wanted to look as tastefully glam as possible while still being able to jump around. No high heels or any of that nonsense. Amelia jumped, sang, played occasional tambourine, and gave us affable anecdotes about the secret to tidy rooms and the provenance of the Ten Songs About Girls cover photo (both Chickfactor-related – Gail tidies rooms by stuffing their contents in cupboards, apparently, and the girl on the sleeve is Tallulah, Pam’s daughter – ‘with two ‘l’s, so she can’t have been named after us, must have been The Go-Betweens’). The band charged through a set drawn mostly from the new album, and it was just perfect. The sound was tougher than on record, and the one outing from the 6 Billion People album (isn’t is terrifying that it’s now 7 billion?), ‘Talking Backwards’, fitted in nicely. But it couldn’t match the tender solace of ‘Love is Hard Enough’, the gleeful revenge of ‘Leaving Christmas Day’, or the raucous chant of ‘Broken Doll’. They’re a different band now, such assurance, such fun, every melody hits home. And was there ever a better writer of melodies?

So that was how the three-day London Chickfactor event finished up. Walking past us, WFMU DJ Gaylord Fields, who had been such a great compère and DJ over the two nights, stopped and thanked S. for dancing. What a nice man! The dancing – also great – was brought on by Tender Trap latterly, but also by the surprise (to us) of the evening, The Real Tuesday Weld. We’d been a bit glummed-out by Bridget St John, who seemed sincere and was in good voice, but sang about holes in hearts in one song, and exploding hearts in another, and appeared to be attempting to end suffering and terrorism by doing so. Which is laudable, I guess, and even quite sweet, but it was too serious to take seriously. Weary of this unmediated authenticity, we were a little suspicious as the next band set up, a woman in a long red dress (good, provisionally, but could be used to go to the opera) with a violin (could go either way); and man in a red pork pie hat (good) and shades (neutral) with a clarinet (just how classical are they going to be?). Stage right a man with curly hair and some odd brooch thing, in a suit jacket with smart jeans, manning the keyboards and laptop. In front of the laptop, a rubber wolf (hold it...). They began with a slow keyboard drone-driven instrumental, beautiful and artificial, barely structured, and I didn’t want it to stop in case their actual songs were serious and dull. But they weren’t, they were stupid, gleeful, witty, elegant – and they swung like ’30s jazz. And the duet! The man on the right (I should call him Stephen) growled in character as the wolf from ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as the woman with the dress (I should call her... Geraldine McEwan? Surely not) got scared, but in a cool, collected way. She had a really amazing voice, of the kind that doesn’t often grace indie pop, powerful yet relaxed, as supple as the bopping clarinet which was also anomalous in this context, but all of it was so gleeful and so fun, we loved them. Afterwards Chris went up to offer Stephen awestruck congratulations on the performance, and he said we could touch the wolf if we liked. ‘It’s not real’ I said, on discovering that it was bendy. ‘Of course it’s not real’ scoffed Stephen in contemptuous disbelief. ‘I told him it was stuffed,’ explained Chris. It was only a foot and a half long, I’m so gullible sometimes.

The other two bands we saw on Sunday were good too – the Jim Ruiz Set, also new to me, were more in the underachieving indie vein, and, as Brogues had indicated, bossa-nova tinged with a nod or two to Edwyn Collins. Also country-tinged, I thought. They were at their best on the lighter-sounding songs, one of which – what was the title? – was named so that no one could forget Jim Ruiz’s birthday. Another he said he’d written to try and get as morose as Stephin Merritt. There was instrument swapping, nice male / female harmonies (sometimes with added laughter), and chiming Rickenbacker solos, sometimes discordant, it wasn’t clear how deliberately. They left a warm glow. As did Pipas, of course. I do love Pipas. They’re one of the rare bands who will always leave me feeling better after listening. They are never less than sweetly good natured, and often touch ludicrous pop heights in the course of their short songs and albums. ‘Windswept Room’ from Sorry Love is my favourite – ‘Piccadilly hound, I miss you when you’re around’. No idea what that means or why it sounds so fond when it should be acerbic, but it turns the song on a dime. They didn’t play that, but they did do ‘Rock And / Or Roll’, and the one that goes ‘One two three four five six seven / Hope some time before eleven’, and Lupe somehow contrived to forget the words in the first half of that couplet (‘One two...’ [puzzled look] ‘...six seven’). There were also problems with her Spanish guitar, which made no noise at all to begin with, and, when she’d asked in vain if anyone present had a 9 volt bettery, proposed carrying on anyway, which would clearly not have worked. ‘That’s what I love about Lupe,’ said Mark, dressed incredibly sweetly in an Amor de Dias T-shirt. The guitar then fell over, twice, when Lupe had gone back to playing bass (hope it was OK). So it wasn’t the smoothest of sets (‘the awkward ballet of Pipas’, was Mark’s description), but it was still great, still them. Leaving a nostalgia for 2006, much as The Aislers Set did on Saturday, for 2002. It’s brilliant to be celebrating these bands, of course, and the whole Chickfactor anniversary occasion is to do with looking back, but still... It’s weird, nostalgia for a time so recent. Like that Belle & Sebastian line about ‘Another TV “I Love 1999”’ from 2003. Who will love 2012, in another four or six years? Whatever else is going on, these gigs will be a reason.

Part One to follow. Photos by Chris S., the rest of them are on Flickr.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Ford Maddox Ford – ‘The Last Post’

Isn’t One Day I’m Going to Soar a great record? Unapologetically damaged: celebratory, bold as brass, but ready to bolt for the hole in the skirting board at the merest sign of the gentlest cat. There’s no way Kevin would have betrayed the Dexys name for a quick buck, but still, it’s glorious to have the proof. The telling moment, on record as in the live show, is the mid point of ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, a blissful duet turning sour on a dime, for no reason but Kevin’s whim: ‘I think I’m going round the bend, now this must end’. Madeline can only exclaim, ‘What?!’ Parade’s End, too, is a story of love gone rancorous on a whim, and its concluding volume, The Last Post, sours the toxic pot of Christopher and Sylvia’s relations still further. Almost entirely left out of the recent TV series, it begins with Mark Tietjens, who has been paralysed by a seizure on armistice day, lying within a ramshackle construction with a roof but no walls, in the grounds of a house Christopher has taken in Sussex, as the base for his post war antique dealings. His long standing mistress and now wife, Marie-Léonie, tends to him, turning the pages of a newspaper held between two picture frames so that he can keep up with the racing news, and in the mean time she bottles cider and gets on with the other day-to-day duties of the smallholding. The day on which the book is set is some years after the armistice. Published in 1928, it finds Sylvia and Christopher’s son, Michael / Mark, at Oxford amongst a set of Marxist-Communists. Since he was born in 1912 or 1913, he would be 15 or 16 in 1928, and he must be at least that old – perhaps the book is set slightly in the future? In any case, it deals with the day of Mark’s death, and his thoughts and reflections make up a good deal of the text. Christopher is absent, off on a doomed mission to prevent the highly contentious Groby Great Tree from being chopped down (it is already down, and it brought down a chunk of the house – including Mark’s childhood bedroom – with it).

Mark’s mind is a stuffy, misogynistic place to be:
It is obvious that women must be allowed what means they can make use of to maintain – to arouse – their sex attraction for their men. That is what the bitches are for in the scale of things. They have to perpetuate the breed.
Make that misanthropic, too. Now, this is a very un-Dexys attitude, but what is similar is the insistence on sexual attraction as a powerful and uncontrollable force. Over the course of his musings, Mark adds to sex attraction ‘sex fever’, ‘sex-cruelty’, ‘sex-madness’, ‘sex-viciousness’ and ‘sex ferocity’ – it is quite clear that he sees it as a malignant force, to be guarded against, and this helps to explain his peculiar life choices. Born to be lord of the manor, in possession of a good fortune, he ran from the universally acknowledged truth that he must be in want of a wife, and hid in a cubby hole in London with a woman who for many years was more maid than significant other. From the TV series (which leaves out Marie-Léonie completely), S. presumed Mark must be gay. Maybe he is and won’t face it. Certainly some of his misogyny stems from seeing what Sylvia has done to Christopher – but then he is the elder brother, so by that stage he had already settled into his weirdly uncomplicated, uncommitted (but monogamous) regime.

It is not possible to understand Mark purely in terms of his own generation, though. He is bound by honour just as much as Christopher, though they understand the idea differently (Mark more in bureaucratic / legal terms – what can be proved against one). Thinking about their father, he reflects:
He had been a younger son who had never spoken to his father for forty years. Grand-father had never forgiven him for marrying Miss Selby of Biggen… not because it was marrying below him but because Grand-father had wanted their mother for his eldest son…
And then, of their father’s death, from an apparently accidental gunshot wound:
Did he commit suicide? If so then Valentine Wannop was his daughter.
Mark later rejects this idea, in order, perhaps, to die at peace, but it’s a shocking moment. It pulls his motives into focus: he has seen the damage that the choosing the wrong partner, or having affairs with the wives of friends can do to subsequent generations, and rather than risk doing the same himself… but it’s not even that, it’s not an altruistic choice, it’s that he resents – whilst accepting – the imposition of his own birth, and wants to minimise its effects.
He had always been tired of the tenantry and of Groby. He had been born tired of them.

Some of the strange vocab of The Last Post: fauteuil, auriference, purfling, apophthegms, incult, jonnock, jigamaree, lustrum, chaffering, flinders, vicegerent, clittering, trituration, cicisbeo, pellitory, skep, stiver, tweeny (as in servant, not teenager), layette, slub, marmoreally, fald-stool.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dexys at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18th September

[Another diary-review like this one, fact-checked a bit. It wouldn’t hurt to set the scene by mentioning the support act, a burlesque performer whose name I didn’t catch, and who turned out to embody the ‘later use of the term’ – i.e. striptease. It was all very professional and, as you’d expect with something Dexys-associated, her costume was beautifully cut and colour co-ordinated, being all in lemon-yellow. Over the ten minutes of a brass-band soundtrack she eventually got down to pants, tiara and nipple-covering sequinned discs. It was the one moment of the evening which recalled Kevin Rowland’s fabulous My Beauty album, in particular the cover and the ‘Concrete and Clay’ video, which doomed it, of course, commercially. A young female stripper didn’t come close to the taboos addressed there, but it was a tip of the hat, I thought. Nice tits, too, well swung.]

19th Sept. Fennel soup! And a latte, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery café in Edinburgh, the day after Dexys played the Queen’s Hall. Fennel, apple and... celeriac, I think, though it doesn’t taste like celery. Perhaps it doesn’t, generally. Dexys were great, very much the polished showmen of their Later... performance, drilled and immaculately dressed. Kevin wore a grey fedora all the way through, which was a problem at first because we were right above the stage on the balcony, so it was three songs before we got to see his face. For ‘She Got a Wiggle’ a screen was wheeled out, on to which Madeleine Hyland was projected, singing when appropriate (the ‘I’m mad about you’ refrain), otherwise smouldering. Kevin performed to the screen, letting us identify him positively for the first time. I presumed Hyland hadn’t come on tour with them, but the screen turned out to be a device for preserving the thunder of her appearance a few songs later, on ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’. That’s when the sparks really began to fly.

They played the whole of One Day I’m Going to Soar, and it was great, but the encores were greater. A slow, mellow, green-lit ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, sung in response to some stage patter, a policeman asking Kevin to explain himself for… burning, naturally. I’m sure Chris Roberts’ Don’t Stand Me Down article mentioned policemen and burning (hey, it did), must be an old routine. There was no ‘Geno’, though folks chanted for it; there was an extended ‘Come On, Eileen’, Kevin strutting up and down in front of the stage like a peacock, trying to climb a speaker stack and thinking better of it, returning to strutting. Clasping outstretched hands from the front row. And then, best of all, with a curtailed intro, just ‘I’ve been wondering, what’s she like?’… yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything better than Dexys playing ‘This Is What She’s Like’, straight from 1985 (except for the reception, so one hears). After singing ‘Well you know the kind of people that put creases in their old Levis?’, Kevin said, ‘people really used to do that’. It built quickly and got a huge round of applause as it dropped back for the harmonies and variations. A band-intro bit was built in and as it approached its final whirl Madeleine Hyland came out again, not to sing but to stand – to stand him down? – accusatory, hands on hips. Kevin didn’t sing to her this time, he was wrapped up in his mantra, ‘This is my soul’, over and over for many short minutes, and though that might be self-centred it radiated like nothing I’ve ever felt, and it was his soul, filling the room, transcendentally joyful.

Chris S.’s photos of the gig.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The only good Tory is a lonely Tory

Have you been watching Parade’s End? After the first episode I found myself reading along, which is something I’ve never done before. TV adaptations are all very well, but you don’t want them to interfere with your conception of the book, do you? Previously I’ve found actors’ faces hard to shift when reading after watching, but this time, doing both at once, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Christopher Tietjens, self-contained and in permanent meltdown, but it is impossible to identify him with his character visually. Tietjens is a ‘fat golfing idiot with bulging eyes’, and his wife Sylvia says of him:
I call my husband the Ox. He’s repulsive: like a swollen animal.
For all his slow, deliberate movements, and his pained facial expressions, Cumberbatch isn’t exactly swollen, and certainly not fat. Ford Maddox Ford himself (above) seems a better physical fit.

Though I’ve a book-and-a-bit of this tetralogy yet to go, I wanted to get down my thoughts about Tietjens’ Tory values, because they’re not straightforward. He’s a member – the youngest son – of an old, wealthy, Yorkshire family. They have a grand home called Groby, to which Christopher is unexpectedly heir. Two of his elder brothers died in battle in India ‘on the same day and not a mile apart’, and the eldest, Mark, ‘the archetype of all sound men’, has ruled himself out of the running:
‘He,’ Tietjens said, ‘has got a French woman near Euston station. He’s lived with her for over fifteen years, of afternoons, when there were no race meetings. She’ll never let him marry and she’s past the child-bearing stage. So there’s no one else….’
The stage is set, one would have thought, for Christopher to take up the reigns which are his by birth: to be the great landowner, or, in the war (the book starts in 1912, and has so far reached the armistice), to be comfortably part of the officers’ club. If he doesn’t want that, he could discreetly get himself a mistress and live beneath the radar, like Mark; or he could make a pyrrhic stand against his own privilege, like... Wittgenstein, say. He could give away all his money and live according to principles of egalitarianism. He could certainly divorce his unfaithful, contemptuous wife, who almost ruins his military career at one point by telling General Campion that he is a Socialist, in response to Campion’s musings:
he’s got a positive genius for getting into the most disgusting messes…. You’re too young to have heard of Dreyfus…. But I always say that Christopher is a regular Dreyfus….
Campion’s charge is that Tietjens is hapless. This is and isn’t true. It is true if he is being judged by the standards of an upper class which values property and solidarity above all else; but Christopher’s particular idealism is to believe that his class is not just about self-perpetuation, that it is there to set an example, and to provide money, leadership and moral guidance. In other words, although he should be an insider, he believes the stories his class tells about itself to outsiders, and so falls prey to subtle social forces which want to avoid the exposure of the prevailing doublethink.

Precisely because he does believe these stories, Christopher does not rebel. He acts in what he sees as an honourable manner – the only manner possible – when all around him people wince at his lack of ambiguity. He marries Sylvia because it is possible he has got her pregnant; but it is more likely that she has entrapped him, being already pregnant by another man. This inauspicious start, coupled with Tietjens’ (so far) chaste affection for Valentine Wannop, leads to an escalation of rumours which gets back to his father, including betrayal of his country for money to support Valentine and their (non-existent) child, ‘connivance’ in other affairs of Sylvia’s, and himself sharing his a friend’s mistress. His father cuts him at their club, then commits suicide back in Yorkshire. Christopher can’t forgive him, for the accusations or the suicide, and refuses his inheritance – and it is this last point which, ironically, is the most damaging. ‘Of course, refusing property is a sign of being one of these fellows’, says General Campion, confirmed for the moment in his opinion of Tietjens as a Socialist.

‘By God!’ Christopher exclaimed. ‘I loathe your whole beastly buttered-toast, mutton-chopped, carpet-slippered, rum-negused comfort as much as I loathe your beastly Riviera-palaced, chauffeured, hydraulic-lifted, hot-house aired beastliness of fornication….’
Christopher’s attitude is similar to Socialism in that it is against the same things; but it is not for the same things. It is nonsensical in that it relies on the integrity of the social hierarchy as much as on the integrity of individuals; and though Tietjens believes this once existed – in his beloved seventeenth* century – he knows that it hasn’t survived. So much of Parade’s End is about bureaucracy, from the statistics office in London, which he quits in frustration, to the trenches in France, where he finds official obfuscation undiminished. His personal integrity is never in doubt to the reader, but neither is it obvious to his companions; as he reflects, ‘I am damn good at not speaking’.
And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy — as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives — was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.
The golden age he harks back to, of ‘Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan’, was simpler, slower, on a smaller scale, and its organising principles have failed to survive industrialisation. ‘Damn the Empire! It was England!’ thinks Tietjens – and you sympathise, but it’s not a position that goes anywhere. Opening up and speaking is the only possible response to his damning assessment of all society, which is, if he could only realise it, an argument in favour of breaking apart the structures he can’t bear to leave behind.
And Tietjens, who hated no man […] fell to wondering why it was that humanity that was next to always agreeable in its units was, as a mass, a phenomenon so hideous. You look at a dozen men, each of them not by any means detestable and not uninteresting, for each of them would have technical details of their affairs to impart; you formed them into a Government or a club and at once, with oppressions, inaccuracies, gossip, backbiting, lying, corruptions and vileness, you had the combination of wolf, tiger, weasel and louse-covered ape that was human society.

By the way, I joined Twitter recently. You can find some of the more peculiar vocab used in Parade’s End here.

* That should be ‘eighteenth’, which is the century Tietjens keeps yearning for, when industrialisation and the empire hadn’t made hypocrites of his nation’s citizens. The poets he cites, though — Herbert, Donne, Crashaw and Vaughan — all lived in the seventeenth century.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Not buying books

Having barely started on my haul of books from a holiday in April (so far just the Moomin one and a third of Essays of Elia), I was determined not to add too much to the ever-accumulating pile last week in Edinburgh. But I couldn’t resist Gogol’s Collected Tales, picked up from the surprisingly fiction-friendly Word Power, whose radical political foyer merges gracefully into the good stuff as you turn the corner. The table displays inter-weave the strands, making for a thought provoking browse. The chief draw of the Gogol volume was the story ‘The Nose’, in which a man wakes one day to discover he has no nose, merely a smooth blank space where it once was. This is significant – just to me, perhaps – because of a doll belonging to my niece, with thick woollen hair and a simple sewn-on face consisting of a smiling mouth and two dots-for-eyes. She calls her ‘No Nose’.

There was plenty of wool on display at Dovecot Studios, a tapestry studio / exhibition space. They currently have an exhibition celebrating their centenary, which is stunning. I was expecting something pretty craft-based, but it’s more like a fine art show, in wool rather than paint. Many of the pieces are actually derived from paintings by big name artists, and it was uncanny how often this resulted in an improvement. Usually John Bellany, Elizabeth Blackadder and David Hockney leave me cold, but the pieces based on their paintings were more vivid and texturally interesting than any originals I’ve seen. Texture is the key, of course, and S. provided illuminating commentary on how this is achieved, by mixing wool and linen, for instance, giving a fuzzy / clean contrast to the respective sections. She made the gallery attendants a bit nervous, I think, getting right up close to the incredibly valuable exhibits, but she was right, you have to.

We spent ages debating the composition of Victoria Crowe’s Two Views (below). What is that pale strip to the left of the window? A recess? Is it a window, or another painting? If it’s a painting, then how does it manage to billow the curtain? If it’s a window, why can’t you see the runners, or the ledge, or the lower edge of the open section?* Where does the sunlight illuminating the wallpaper come from? The real point, though, is that the wallpaper is beautiful. You only get an inkling from the photo.


* The book says it’s a window, which it obviously is, I suppose. But I like the ambiguity, nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


A couple of unconnected recommendations lately led me to make a start on Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, but I don’t know that it will become much more than a start. I liked the first chapter, in which the exuberant Aubrey irritates the restrained Maturin by bopping along to a string quartet, but as soon as they get anywhere near a boat, the text just explodes with obsolete sailing terms, and I got bored looking them all up. Here Stephen Maturin, high in the rigging of Jack Aubrey’s ship, and suspicious of his guide Mowett, tries to forestall any malicious intent:
        ‘Tell me,’ said Stephen, to keep the young man talking at any cost, ‘tell me, what is the purpose of this platform, and why is the mast doubled at this point? And what is this hammer for?’
        ‘The top, sir? Why, apart from the rigging and getting things up, it comes in handy for the small-arms men in a close action: they can fire down on the enemy’s deck and toss stink-pots and grenadoes. And then these futtock-plates at the rim here hold the dead-eyes for the topmast-shrouds – the top gives a wide base so that the shrouds have a purchase: the top is a little over ten foot wide. It is the same thing up above. There are the cross-trees, and they spread the topgallant-shrouds. You see them, sir? Up there, where the look-out is perched, beyond the topsail yard.’
        ‘You could not explain this maze of ropes and wood and canvas without using sea-terms, I suppose. No, it would not be possible.’
Possibly this kind of thing recedes as the reader becomes more familiar with the terminology, but it struck me as a clumsy (if self-aware) way to dramatise a technical explanation.

More to my taste is Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in her Fortunes of War series. In this scene the Western journalists of Bucharest are gathered together for a stern briefing by the authorities about the benign nature of the previous day’s assassination of the Romanian prime minister. Yakimov is a charming scrounger, masquerading as a journalist chiefly for the food and drink:
Inchcape sat askew, his legs crossed at the knee, an arm over his chairback and his cheek pressed back by his fingertips. He looked sourly at Yakimov, who took the chair beside him, and said: ‘Something fishy about all this.’
        Yakimov, seeing nothing wrong but fearing to betray again his inexperience in the cunning world of journalism, murmured, ‘Quite, dear boy, quite!’ His tone lacked conviction and caused Inchcape to wave an irritable hand at the buffet.
        ‘Roped off!’ he said. ‘Why? Never saw such a thing before at a public function. These people are nothing if not hospitable. And what are all these damned insolent flunkeys doing here? Are they on guard? Or what?’ In an excess of indignation, he jerked round his head and stared at the back rows.
All at once, the scene opens up, through the mechanism of character.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


By some margin, my least favourite moment as a blogger was the evening of 23rd December 2010. Packing to go home for Christmas, I was interrupted by a stream of comments on a recent post about Jay Griffiths’ Wild, apparently by the book’s author. The comments didn’t appear on the post, and at first I thought she must be deleting them too, but they later turned up in Blogger’s spam folder. And, in real time, in my email inbox. Five versions of Griffiths’ objections popped up during the course of the evening, here is a sample:
You are writing about Papua New Guinea. I am writing about West Papua. It’s a very, very common confusion, but West Papua is an entirely different country, invaded by Indonesia and suffering a genocide since the early 1960s, as my book relates. The Western world, in a way which is deeply racist, ignores this genocide of 100,000 people but does, however, show concern for the tiny number of Westerners who have been killed in West Papua. Your blog portrays West Papuans as killers rather than victims of a genocide. Further, the villagers killed in self-defence; the missionaries were invading people’s homes and in Britain when a householder has attacked an intruder, they have been treated with great sympathy. The same moral codes apply.
I was mortified, as you might imagine. My blog? Portraying genocide victims as killers? I hadn’t meant to do that. The book’s powerful polemic, which I distrusted stylistically, nevertheless convinced me morally; the section she objected to (which I removed in response to the comments) was intended to be in sympathy with the book’s message, and with the victims she mentioned.

There was a subtext, which might have contributed to the post’s failure. My family’s links to colonialism are not only a matter of record, but of current activity. At a fairly basic level, I struggle with that: it’s clearly wrong, I would have thought, to go to third world countries and practice religious indoctrination. But it’s also clearly wrong for oligarchies to appropriate a country’s mineral wealth without putting the profits back into infrastructure – and under those circumstances, having a first world religious organisation provide education and healthcare services which would otherwise be lacking, is clearly right. So right it makes the religious indoctrination OK? Well... If the exported Christian tradition is already many generations old, it’s not really indoctrination any more, so what’s the harm? Certainly it is far less than the harm that would be caused by withdrawing. This is the unsatisfactory kind of conclusion I tend to arrive at. Of course it’s complicated further (as it should be) by the fact that I am fond of my aunt, uncle and cousin, and they are doing good work, under harsh conditions, for scant reward.

This week I’ve been reading some family history, by my mother’s cousin, about my great-grandparents (his grandparents), and their time in the Belgian Congo, between 1906-16. They went with the Baptist Missionary Society: he ended up as the captain of a steamboat, she, a doctor, started a hospital. There is, to say the least, a disconnect between the information available about them (no letters survive, curiously; there are only photos and a handful of articles published in Baptist newsletters) and other sources which cover the period. In summary:
What happened in the Congo under Leopold’s regime, which lasted from 1885 to 1908, ranks as one of the worst holocausts in human history. Perhaps up to half the population died – between 5 and 10 million people. But this has remained an unknown part of colonial history except to the few who choose to study it. Unlike Jews and black South Africans, the Congolese have not been able to marshal the political clout to draw attention to the appalling things done to them and make this dark time part of human consciousness.
The ‘political clout’ remark echoes Jay Griffiths’ ‘deeply racist’ accusation. There’s no denying that deaths on such a scale are almost incomprehensible tragedies, nor that their lack of currency in general knowledge terms is anything but outrageous. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, recommended as background reading, is very heavy going, a list of atrocities, of casual, institutionalised murders, leading to the de-population of a whole country.

The family history document concludes that the Baptist Missionary Society was complicit in this situation, but finds no reason to criticise my great-grandparents specifically. The organisation failed in its duty to speak out; they got on with the duty of their day-to-day work. Here is the Society’s ulterior motive:
Robert Arthington, who continued to provide funds for the expansion of the mission, was gripped by the belief that the Second Coming would not happen until ‘the Gospel had been preached in all the world’. The overriding purpose of the mission was to spread eastwards and to make converts. The determination to expand, to create a chain of Protestant mission stations across the breadth of Africa, was what impelled those who controlled the BMS.
They were there to expand, not to help people; and to – get to the Protestant Second Coming before the Catholic one happened? It’s nonsense. Healthcare is shown to be similarly suspect: it ‘attracted large numbers of local people […], providing audiences for evangelism’. Even when they were doing the right thing, they were doing it for the wrong reason.

If the missionaries’ target was expansion, King Leopold’s was profit. His entire administration appears to have been geared towards forcing the Congolese people to harvest red rubber, at first for token remuneration, later for the privilege of not being shot. Bullets were at a premium in this system, and the soldiers on the ground had to account for each one used with a severed hand. This led to the most grotesque form of statistical manipulation I’ve ever heard of. If a bullet was used to kill an animal for meat, a hand still had to be produced, so one would be cut from a living body.

And I don’t wish to reduce a humanitarian catastrophe to a quip.

But this is why.

And the missionary society’s complicity is why.

All targets.

All league-tables.

All economies of scale.

Are bad.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Bill Drummond – ‘100’

I’m quite enjoying reading books without writing about them at the moment, but it seemed silly not to mention Bill Drummond’s new one, 100. Not least because it is harder to get hold of than I realised, and maybe this will tip off somebody before it is too late. I got mine from here, but it turns out that was quite lucky, because they were only selling 100 of the 1000-strong book cube sculpture (there’s a photo two thirds of the way down the page), and next month the cube moves to Liverpool where a further 100 copies can be bought from News From Nowhere. It’s as wonderful and miscellaneous as you’d expect, like all of Bill’s books an incredulous and joyful struggle with the ongoing process of being Bill. He is sticking to his story that recorded music is a dead art form, and his main thrust here seems to be against the more general passivity that consumer culture encourages. Don’t watch football, play football, he recommends; if you’re too old, go and watch your kids play in the park. Don’t listen to music, make music, make it for the moment, and don’t you dare press record. If I were to have four questions to ask Bill, one would be, ‘what are books, but “record” buttons’?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

David Sutherland: Comics Genius, Dundee University, 13th June

Another occasion deserving acknowledgement, to say the least, but I bet you’ve never heard the name. Those most strongly associated with long running Beano cartoon strips The Bash Street Kids and Dennis the Menace, naturally enough, are their creators, Leo Baxendale and David Law, but this year is the 50th anniversary of David Sutherland taking over the reins of Bash Street from a disenchanted Baxendale. He’s been drawing it ever since, and appeared at a Q & A yesterday evening at Dundee University, which has run several D. C. Thomson anniversary-related exhibitions over the last few years (there is even a comics department). Sutherland no longer draws the weekly Dennis the Menace strip, but it was his between 1970 and 1998, and as the event programme notes, ‘Sutherland’s Dennis remains the iconic version’. Certainly for people round about my age, who read The Beano in the ’80s, this is true. Working out who drew what in The Beano was difficult, though, as artists never signed their work, and you had to cross-reference it with signed IPC comic strips to learn which style belonged to, say, Tom Patterson, or Robert Nixon. Sutherland never crossed that divide, and remained anonymous. But his art was The Beano, to a large extent: it was the standard from which others deviated. Not exactly flamboyant, but full of warmth and unexpected detail. His composition of Bash Street Kids scenes is less anarchic than Leo Baxendale’s; they are remarkable for their order and elegance rather than their chaos. Which is a strange compliment to pay a strip about a class of uncontrollable children, but it works: they are built to last.

The idea was that David would draw various Bash Street Kids on a flip chart facing the audience (which meant he had his back to us quite a lot), and that three colleagues would ask him questions about his life and career as he did so. The drawing would distract him from being too embarrassed by the occasion. He was very quietly spoken, but not averse to telling an anecdote or two once the session began, and the audience hung on every word. He asked his wife to cover her ears, and spoke about the time he’d been confronted with a chip pan fire in the kitchen: ‘If I’d remembered what you’re supposed to do, and covered it with a dish cloth, it would have been fine,’ he said, ruefully. Instead he ended up making the fire worse, and in desperation threw the pan out of the back door towards the vegetable patch – but somehow it hit another observer square in the back, and he watched him pelt across the garden as his own forearm was ‘hanging like a glove’. Of more relevance, perhaps (‘Get back to the comics’, requested his wife) was his account of an early job designing themed décor for the foyer of a cinema, in the days before this was franchised, monetised and whatever else. He would cover great panels with jungle foliage, or other backgrounds relating to the film that was showing, and assemble them in situ, creating something like a stage set. Later he described appearing on the TV show Challenge Anneka, and decorating a bus with Beano characters on a similar scale. They offered to put him up at a hotel afterwards, but he wanted to get home, and drove straight back to Dundee, presumably not a short trip.

One of his original characters, I learned with delight, was Olive, the dinner lady from The Bash Street Kids – and she had been based on a tea lady at D. C. Thomson, whose tea was not up to much, and whom Sutherland teased mercilessly on this account (fair enough), before exposing her ineptitude to the nation in the comic (um…). Her only revenge, he said, was to sometimes ‘forget’ to bring any sugar with his tea, ‘so she got her own back’. That’s a good illustration of his modesty, I think: he doesn’t seem aware of his own importance, or if he is, he doesn’t care for it – something else in which he is the anti-Baxendale (not that I’d disparage Baxendale for his self-importance, it was quite justified). He didn’t talk very much about him, but he did speak movingly in appreciation of Dudley D. Watkins, whom he described as an all-rounder in much the same way that others speak of him – both seem to have had the capacity to move easily between a more realistic style of art for adventure stories, and the funny strips for which they are better known. He even mentioned being presented with the strip Watkins was working on when he died, and having to complete the last page drawn by his hero. ‘I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to do – but otherwise there would have been a blank page, it was a very tight schedule.’ Unbelievably matter-of-fact.

It began to seem as though this gentle, retiring man would be able to regale us, with prompting, well on into the evening, having completed only one page of the flip chart in an hour because of all the pesky questions. This page, which he coloured with pastels, contained the shorter Kids – Wilfred and Spotty at the top, and ’Erbert, the short sighted one, lower down looking at a thistle in a pot. ‘Sorry I’m late, Teech’, ran his speech balloon. But the interview section of proceedings drew to a close with the screening – after several attempts at getting sound through speakers, and subsequently under a mild patina of feedback – of a special message recorded by Nick Park, who was glowing in his praise, and hoped David wouldn’t be too overwhelmed by the collection of his work at the accompanying exhibition. Then there were audience questions, including ‘Will you sign my annual?’ from one boy, and ‘What will you do when you’re not allowed to call Fatty Fatty anymore?’ – this speculation on political correctness gone mad being met with a sneak preview of the plot of the strip he’s been drawing this week, in which Fatty takes diet pills, and ends up so thin no-one recognises him, though they’re suspicious of all the things he knows about Bash Street. Then he lets on, but the pills make him so flatulent the kids all throw their sweets at him, and Teech contributes his sandwiches, until finally he’s as fat as ever. Ready for next week, as always.

Oh, and Plug is his favourite Bash Street Kid, and he hates drawing bicycles.


The exhibition of David Sutherland’s drawings will be on until 15th August.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Momus at the CCA, Glasgow, 8th June

[This sounds a cop-out, but I really do have enough of staring at screens sometimes. What follows is what my diary says, without the usual editing down / up. Might still be OK, and the occasion deserves to be acknowledged.]

7th June. Momus in Glasgow tomorrow. Just listening to Bibliotek for the first time, it’s nice, very gentle, sound-wise. No big tunes standing out, but that does tend to take a few spins.

9th June. Live, the song ‘Bibliotek’ had more of a kick to it – ‘No one takes me out / And no one takes me back / To my bibliotek’, a hymn to neglected books which presumably springs from Momus’ own forays into authorship, but which also taps into the whole book / ebook debate, for who could regret a neglected ebook in quite the same way? Of course, his song ‘Datapanik’ is all about lost data, but it is personal data, and it is definitely panic, rather than regret, than the loss of porn videos and women’s contact details causes. I wonder if the two songs, with their short titles ending in ‘k’, are a deliberate pair?

He played at the CCA’s club room: small, stylish and sweltering. The radiators were on, the air conditioning units in the ceiling were off. A slowed down clip of Momus’ head and moving fingers was projected on to the wall at the back of the stage, and this, alongside a large upwards-pointing red lamp in one of the two window recesses, constituted the lighting. He began crouching with a growled, bitter cover of Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat’s ‘Ballad of the Bastard’. I didn’t identify it immediately, Momus’ ‘I Want You But I Don’t Need You’ suggested itself too. Then a rousing ‘Love Wakes the Devil’, rolling inevitably before a more impassioned climax than the record musters. Momus’ vocals throughout were laudably uninhibited, swapping more often to the higher register than the records do, and louder too. This must be the biggest downside of his tendency to make records at home, in surroundings which encourage intimacy more than performance. ‘Widow Twankey’ from Joemus was treated to a cracked falsetto bellow, deliberately ugly, and on the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ cover he had a good stab at Bowie’s controlled, loud croon. Come to think of it, octave hopping is a trick of Bowie’s too – e.g. ‘Heroes’ or the two versions of ‘It’s No Game’.

Perhaps the highlight of the set was ‘We Don’t Have to Make Children’, which departed quite drastically form the original, stretching the idea into old age and death. So,
We don't have to make children
When we make love
Kids are so noisy, they take so much time
This way the pleasure is all mine
eventually became, ‘We don’t even have to make love’. Momus’ back became increasingly curved as he mimed encroaching decrepitude, and then imagined the death of the partner – after sketching out the details of her decay too, the swelling curves, the sagging tits (described with more relish than disappointment). The themes of ageing and death kept recurring, in a later song he stretched out to mime being in a coffin, and in ‘Hypnoprism’ he stroked his failing hair to accompany the line,
I’ve got a spotty case of alopecia
And yet, these brazen observations of things most fiftysomethings would want to keep quiet about were not self-pitying, merely part of the insatiable curiosity which drives his ever prolific output.

There was variety, too – he asked us to imagine that his own head, projected behind him, was that of a beautiful woman, and caressed the wall where the image fell

[the diary entry cuts off here, without even mentioning ‘The Charm Song’. But I don’t have time to reformulate these thoughts, Momus, I have to find new things to be interested in. You taught me that. Thanks for the gig, it was great.]

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Dickens vs. Conan Doyle

This hasn’t been much of a book blog lately, the directions I’ve been meaning to pursue have been a bit contradictory, perhaps – English essayists, Virginia Woolf / Bloomsbury, and then the Big Books that glare out at me. Big novels can be great, of course, they can absorb you into a setting in a way that smaller ones can’t. But what if it strikes you, three quarters of the way through, that the painstakingly constructed social scene is a house of cards, that the words are just words, that length doesn’t equal depth after all? Chris and I never did reach any kind of agreement over War and Peace: for me, the second half was a thrilling exercise in thinking everything into line with a cause, I got caught up in the back-projected, desperate nationalism; for him, it was deeply untrustworthy. For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, not because of his bicentenary so much as a smaller anniversary – twenty years ago my class read it at school, and I loved it as much as most of the class hated it. Now, I always get annoyed with Dickens somewhere between half way and three quarters of the way through one of his longer novels: his circumscribed idea of characterisation becomes so irritating (Mr Jarndyce has just proposed to Esther, if you must know – why on earth?). This time, the vagueness of his attack on the processes of the law has also become a bit too blatant. They are bad because they result in endless procrastination, and they should be reformed. What are they? Bleak House won’t tell you that. So it, too, becomes deeply untrustworthy. But for the left.

A splendid antidote to all of this has been Arthur Conan Doyle’s marvellous, straightforward The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, a collection of linked short stories about a soldier in Napoleon’s forces, both before and after the Battle of Borodino which lies at the heart of War and Peace. A brave and hilariously conceited brigadier looks back on his exploits in the glory days of 1812 or so, when he was about thirty, which would make him 112 in 1894, when the first story was published – or 77 in 1869, the year of Conan Doyle’s birth, so it is at least plausible that he could have met a hero of this sort as a boy. Anyway, he blows up a castle in that first story, so let’s not quibble. Then he gets involved with bandits with vendettas, other bandits who want to lash him to bound trees and rip him in two, bandits in disguise, Wellington, Napoleon himself several times, damsels in distress who may or may not be in distress for the reason they pretend, English soldiers who rescue him from bandits and therefore might not be so bad after all – it’s great fun. And I shouldn’t call him conceited, because, as he argues:
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing.
The irony doesn’t dawn upon him, as ironies never do, for Gerard is like Bertie Wooster in his ability to tell a complete story without understanding half of it. Napoleon seizes on this quality when he picks him for a secret mission:
‘Brave and clever men surround me upon every side. But a brave man who –’ He did not finish his sentence, and for my own part I could not understand what he was driving at.
It is striking, in fact, how much Gerard is like the stupid Watson played by Nigel Bruce in Roy William Neill’s 1940s films. The Gerard stories are much funnier than the Sherlock Holmes stories and, if less ingenious, they are much more action packed. I love the bit where he escapes from prison and navigates by following the wind in the dark.

I also read Anthony Horowitz’s ‘official’ Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk recently, which struck me as pretty good, all things considered, but please take into account my extremely high tolerance for bad Holmes adaptations. S. read it too, and pointed out that the language is not 19th century English, though it clearly strives to be; there were too many modern idioms for her liking. Not to mention idiotic mistakes, e.g. an old newspaper that becomes as soft as tissue – this simply isn’t what happens to old newspaper, it becomes brittle. Various clever-sounding clues fail in this way. My favourite bad bit was Holmes’ deduction, from watching Watson’s bookmark move slowly and unsteadily through a book he’d lent him, before disappearing completely, that he’d finished the book, and hadn’t liked it very much. There were plenty of good bits too – the American gangster plot was well done, and the basic problem of how to spin out a Sherlock Holmes story to novel length (always tackled by Conan Doyle with lengthy absences of Holmes, or 100 pages of back story), was inventively dealt with, by linking two stories together. Then to finish a set piece of depravity – used as a reason for this story’s late emergence – and a really great horse drawn chase sequence, which finds its equivalent in the Gerard story ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’. Or The Sign of Four’s boat chase, possibly. Curiously, the book seemed aware of the trap of linking Holmes too closely with the police (discussed here), but fell into it anyway. Holmes is not about procedures or processes – neither is Gerard – but about swiftness and excitement. Not that it is wrong in a novel to point out the limitations of the legal procedures that less mercurial citizens have to endure, but I think I’ll pause a bit before finishing Bleak House.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Heliotropism: Lightships – ‘Electric Cables’ and F.C.B. Cadell

lightship – a moored or anchored boat with a beacon light to warn or guide ships at sea (Oxford Dictionary of English)
On our family holidays when I was a child, we’d quite often visit Iona. It was a God thing, there’s no getting around that – we’d stay at the abbey, and there would be groups of activities all week. Pottery, candle-making, singing, and so on. When M. went a few years ago as part of a holiday to Skye, he reported that it was full of people in chunky sweaters with beards, which was probably also the case in the 1980s, but (let’s not be churlish – and) my memories of the island are entirely fond. I loved the scale of the place, the rocky beaches with red and green stones; the abandoned marble quarry; the old, cold stone of the abbey; the doves on its roof, which you could feed with grain and they’d stand on your arms and head, which only hurt a little bit when they dug in their claws for a better grip. The journey there took two ferries, one to Mull, a fairly large car ferry; and the second tiny and thrilling, as its open-front design allowed the sea to slosh all over the place in bad weather (there was a hinged drawbridge-type guard which took half the short crossing to raise). Cal Mac ferries, both. Two things have triggered these memories this year. One was the F.C.B. Cadell exhibition in Edinburgh (now handily transferred, in truncated form, to Dundee) which had a whole room of landscape paintings of Iona from the 1910s - 30s, luminous with white sand and blue sea. The other was the video for Lightships’ ‘Two Lines’ single, a collage of swiftly moving scenes from Scotland’s west coast, sea-gulls, holidaymakers, a Cal Mac ferry; escape from the city to where the land runs out, and nature weaves its way back in.

Cadell painted quickly on Iona, using small boards and an absorbent ‘white gesso ground’, which allowed his oils to dry more quickly, the catalogue tells us. Furthermore,
It is low-lying, so the light reflected from the surrounding sea intensifies the colours of the white sand beaches and the green of its pastures. The light shining through the shallow waters at the edge of the shore creates brilliant colours of emerald green, blue and violet. In addition, the light and weather change frequently, as the prevailing winds cause a quick succession of cloudy and then clear intervals. (Alice Strang, F.C.B. Cadell, p. 77)
The artist has to chase the sunlight; or wait for it, rather, and then pretend in his work that it was never absent. This is also the approach of Lightships’ Electric Cables, which is positively sun-drenched. Look at the song titles: ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Girasol’, ‘Photosynthesis’, ‘Sunlight to the Dawn’. I mean, there is sunshine in Glasgow, but this is hardly representative. Like flowers, leaves and Cadell, Lightships aren’t content to let the sun come to them, but bend towards it (another song title is ‘Stretching Out’; a lyric in ‘Girasol’ has sunflowers ‘slowly turn towards the sun’). Likewise, they stretch towards seaside towns and islands, towards peace and light, from roots in the city; and it’s the city which can cram a large, dark room with people eager to hear this music, as it did on Friday at the CCA; it’s the city which allowed this record to happen. So there’s a tension to it, for all that it appears so tranquil. ‘Muddy Rivers’ suggests something of this, describing the path of a river from source to sea via mill wheel and factory:
From the open hills to the crowded shore
It carried the stains from the factory floor
It’s all related, in other words: industrialisation could only happen because of nature’s resources. Both the band’s name and the record’s name could be taken to refer to civilisation at the extremities: it is the electricity cable which brings the benefits of industrialisation and infrastructure to the remote hamlet; it is the lightship which provides navigational guidance when motorways and road signs are far behind.

The lightship, too, provides a link with The Pastels, via their ‘Mechanised’, a song about a lighthouse. The album is on their label, Geographic, and there are all kinds of cross-pollination involved in that association. Gerry Love, whose band this is, plays in the current Pastels line-up, for a start, and his song ‘Sweet Days Waiting’, from the last Teenage Fanclub album, seemed to draw on the sound of the slowed down, pillow-soft version of ‘Thru Your Heart’ which has been in their set for a while. Tom Crossley, whose flute provides much of the light in this album all about light, is a bigger influence still. His recordings with International Airport have a lot in common with how Electric Cables has turned out: they share a kind of organic density, a complex sound which seems to have grown naturally, not according to any plan. But where International Airport’s songs themselves follow this logic, meandering unpredictably and bursting occasionally from the undergrowth into pop, Lightships’ are pop from the off, full of melody, warmth and restraint, like Gerry’s Teenage Fanclub songs always are, but built on this white gesso ground, this iridescent sound which cuts the Big Star cord and lets them float off on their own adventure. ‘Two Lines’ seems to lift into flight within seconds, hanging in major seventh heaven on an everlasting delay, and I can’t see 2012 producing a better single than ‘Sweetness in her Spark’ – I love the way it fumbles into being, its insistent guitar motif absent for a few bars whilst it gets underway. I’m not going to force an opinion on the rest, except to say that it’s all beautifully of a piece (Jon Dale has some interesting things to say about its stylistic palette), and I look forward to each point of light drawing me out in turn over the summer months.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Souvenirs, part 3

More souvenirs from our holiday a few weeks ago. You would think, travelling with a Kindle (and, OK, one large-ish paperback), that the proverbial suitcase-full-of-books issue would not arise. But that would be to reckon without York’s booming second hand book trade, in particular Ken Spelman, whose shop accounts for the bulk of the pictured booty, and the Minster Gate Bookshop, which provided the two Virginia Woolf books (The Common Reader, Second Series and The Death of the Moth, a posthumous essay collection). The Moomin book, the first to have Lars Jansson’s name on the cover (a bit unfair as he wrote the whole of the previous volume), came from the Travelling Man comic shop, and it is certainly as good as its immediate predecessors, even if it never reaches the heights of ‘Moomin on the Riviera’. How could it, really? The artwork is indistinguishable from Tove’s, and a good deal less sloppy than some of her later comic strips, after she’d got bored with the process. Is there a point to it? Well, it’s still fun. I wondered whether Lars’ success at imitating his sister’s style might have influenced her switch to scratchier illustrations in the later Moomin books.

Most of the rest of the books spring, in one way or another, from Virginia Woolf. Duncan Grant crops up frequently in her diaries, and Quentin Bell’s Bloomsbury is about the Bloomsbury set, of course (Quentin, Woolf’s nephew, features in the diaries too). Woolf’s Common Reader essays were what got me thinking about other essayists, such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. Another tributary here was Arnold Bennett, who picks out Lamb’s ‘Dream Children: A Reverie’ as a good place to start when forming literary taste. It is heartbreaking. In fact, I’d just like to pause and say with Bennett,
At this point, kindly put my book down, and read Dream Children. Do not say to yourself that you will read it later, but read it now. When you have read it, you may proceed to my next paragraph.
You can find the essay here, here or as part of Essays of Elia.

As for the rest, Addison is another name which features frequently in Woolf’s musings on essayists, and Samuel Johnson – isn’t, as far as I remember. I think she may even take him to task for hiding behind too regular a style. But if I am ever going to read Boswell’s Life, it has to be portable, and this two-volume Everyman edition will do the job nicely. When did publishers stop dividing books into volumes? It’s really annoying. Caricatures by Max (Beerbohm) was in the art section of Ken Spelman’s, alongside Quentin Bell and Duncan Grant, and his spherical G. K. Chesterton made me laugh; it also features Wilde, Churchill, Aubrey Beardsley and – Arnold Bennett, strangely enough. It probably deserves a post of its own, with illustrations. Finally, there was a book I didn’t buy at the Wightwick Manor second hand bookshop, but which I had apparently written. Isn’t it strange what you forget?

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